I recently read a Very Popular Book in a Very Popular Series, which I was going to talk about here until I read the second book in the series and realized--OH NO--that the main character of the book is a total Mary Sue.
For those of you who didn't spend time in the fanfic world, a Mary Sue is a character who everyone else loves. She's a stand-in for the author (fanfic is written mostly by women, which is why "Mary Sue," although there are some Gary Stus out there as well).She's beautiful (but not too beautiful), she's funny, she's self-deprecating, she's smart, and all the other characters will fall head over heels in love with her and think she's awesome. (An example, if I wrote Friday Night Lights fanfiction, Mary Sue would move to town and become Riggins' girlfriend, and Jason Street would have a crush on her, and Lyla Garrity would like her and even Tyra would must us some grudging respect, and their lives would all be better for knowing her. blech.)
In fanfiction, Mary Sues are problematic because they take the focus off of what is supposed to be the main event--the characters from the Real Show. Also, they're boring.
In Real Fiction*, Mary Sues have an additional problem--they are too much the center of the plot. I know that most people feel like the world revolves around them, that they are the center of the universe. In fact, some of the best character advice I've ever heard (although I can't remember where I heard it now), is that "each character is the protagonist of her own story." Awesome, right?
But there's a difference between a character thinking she's the star of her own book, and her actually being the Center of the World. In real life (and in good stories), people have motivations that are sometimes independent of each other. Even though I love my boyfriend, for example, every single thing I do does not revolve around him. But in Mary Sue Land, everything does revolve around her. Every man who meets her falls in love with her, even the evil ones, who want to have sex with her before they kill her. Every woman eventually admires her, even if she steals their husbands just by existing (because a Mary Sue wouldn't intentionally steal someone's husband). Every antagonist comes after her specifically, in order to destroy her, like she's the only good thing left in the world.
In other words, in Mary Sue Land, Mary Sue is the be all and end all, the sun and the moon, the Alpha and the Omega. It all revolves around her. None of the other characters have motivation independent of her, none of the characters really matter. As writers of fanfic can attest, sometimes, reading a Mary Sue can be entertaining--it's wish fulfillment, right, where you are the prettiest and most popular girl in the room. As Heather Chandler** would say, "they all want me as a friend or a f***," and that's a pretty fun place to be (although look where it got Heather Chandler, right? Just sayin'...). But eventually, even readers start feeling alienated from a Mary Sue, because no one is that perfect or that desired or that ...central, all the time, and reading about someone like that for hundreds of pages?
That, my friends, gets old.
*By which I mean generally books not fanfiction, but original stories.
**If you don't know who Heather Chandler is, I can't be your friend anymore.